Week beginning Monday 9th March
Are you actually worried about it though?
So came the text from my friend Sam as I sat watching Tottenham get dumped out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. He forwarded me a bunch of screen grabs tweeted from hospitals in Lombardy and it became clear this was way more serious than I had understood.
For two days the country seemed in denial. Some rang radio stations calling it no worse than flu. Loo-roll was in stock. I barraged my mother with messages. That evening she joked down the phone to my father about my newfound hysteria.
I began isolating too early. On Wednesday morning I bought three packets of pasta two blocks of cheddar and four cans of baked beans and ordered some beers online from a local brewery while making a vow to improve my cooking skills. On Thursday evening Boris told the nation the biggest health scare in a generation meant families were going to lose loved ones before their time. That day on Waterloo Bridge the Sun interviewed passers-by and nobody seemed bothered at all.
I kept the radio on all weekend. At that point 0.008% of the population had the virus so I was probably safe I thought, scanning the supermarket isles. My mother was more concerned about me than herself, I kept telling her to be careful, but she thinks she knows everything. She thinks I think I know everything.
My girlfriend was on the phone to her mother too, arguing about high risk. Her school was refusing to close, her and her classmates were upset. We FaceTimed and talked things over. The football was cancelled. Footfall in the capital’s restaurants and bars dropped by 24%.
I’m listening to the news and I can’t stop. I can’t get on with anything else. My father emails from Argentina. He is quite happy alone in the middle of the Pampa, the news is worrying he admits, but he feels calm.
A family issue had called my mother back for two weeks. But Argentina is closing its borders, it looks like she won’t be able to fly back out. Papa is stoic, sat there in the middle of his vast desert of grassland. I tell him to make friends with the trees. He says they are his only friends.
In Hackney it is a day of brilliant orange sun.
I put my music in and walk to the shops and today the sounds in my ear feel like a small miracle. The school kids in grey uniforms shout and throw a plastic bottle around. The florist is cheerful, business is good he says, people want house plants for the coming quarantine. All is orange, nothing is different but everything is, what will this roundabout look like in a few weeks time.
53 deaths in the UK. All underlying illnesses. Europe is going into shutdown. Boris holds the first of his daily press conferences at 5pm, both comforting and shocking. My brother sets up a facebook group for my mother. I’ve had a good innings, she says on the phone. What do you mean I ask her, are you facing up to your mortality. Well what do you think someone my age thinks about in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep.
For two days I have a cough and phlegm stuck in my wind pipe that I can’t hock up. My steroid inhaler stands guard on my bedside table. The news for asthmatics is positive and not great depending on what you read. The market is in turmoil. Sex toy sales are surging. Liverpool fans are shell shocked.
The radio is full of pain. A chef has lost his job with immediate effect and fears homelessness. A father in tears describes rushing his two year old to hospital, having celebrated her all clear after 27 weeks of chemotherapy in December. A police woman is in self-isolation with a cough, beside herself with impatience describing the public servant guilt of those who need to help but can’t.
My father barks down the phone telling me to get Argentine nationality so I can fly out despite the border closures. It is ridiculous that I don’t have it. It is ridiculous that he has been abandoned by us all and left alone to die. I tell him that for some reason I can’t explain, it would hurt me less to lose them both to this than if everything were normal. This is also ridiculous. The final lesson at Matilda’s school is full of tears.
I ask her what right I have to write about any of this.
She says just write it and then see.
It takes me ten seconds from waking to remember this is a different world. 104 deaths. Rumours of tanks mobilising. A historic bailout by the Chancellor. There is a 2km tailback for beach resorts in Argentina after the government mandates working from home. A sign in the capital reads These aren’t holidays, you asshole.
With every siren I think of a desperate pair of lungs overcome. Does crime go down in times like this. ‘Thieves offering to shop for the elderly are keeping the money’. Carbon emissions are plummeting. 50,000 deaths from pollution in Hubei province are being averted, which means a net gain of lives. Babies and children don’t seem to be affected. I look to the sky.
My mother pulls some strings with the embassy and arranges a flight home for my father. I worry about the airport and the aeroplane and his history of bugs. Your father’s illnesses are mostly psychological, she says.
I feel overcome with sadness about it all. Matilda comes back from Oxford and we fight. The Italians still find the heart to sing to one another from balconies. Will there be a before and after I wonder. I decide to keep my Mathmos mood lamp on around the clock.
I read once the rich think the world is about love while the poor know it is about money. Ten million in the UK are without savings. The last week has pulled the bowels of the earth up from underneath them, from underneath everyone. Scientists skip the animal testing phase. The vaccine race is on.
No new cases reported in China. Being with Matilda means less relentless news and more presence. We go to the shops. It doesn’t look like Hackney and social distancing are seeing eye to eye. That afternoon the press conference blares out from the cracked screen on the table. We are approaching the fast growth part of the upwards curve, says Boris flanked by his stooges.
The Walthamstow marshes are beautiful in the drizzle. The glow from the city sprays the edges of the darkness. I run and she cycles alongside me. All that we’ve got, reads the mural under the pylon by the path. We stop on the refurbished red metal bridge over the Lea and pray in the rain.
My mother cancels my father’s flight. Why? He’s at the beach, she says. The British Museum has a surge of online visits. The top searches are Egypt, Virtual tour, Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone. Continuing stories of prejudice against Asian people in New York. A critical-care nurse finishing a 48hr shift is flooded with donations after breaking down in a supermarket carpark having been left with nothing to buy.
144 deaths. Sirens outside the window. Social distancing could last a year. Half way through a new day in a strange new world. If things were back to normal we would live better. We would live like never before. I promise. Do you hear. And we would love better. With more fury.
177 deaths now. Today is the equinox. My mother wants my father back from Argentina before autumn and the slide into winter. Last night on the marshes the blossom was thick and wet in the darkness. All this new life around us amidst the fear and death. All the help we can get to fight this thing.